For Teachers Research

Redefining what “authentic listening tasks” are

In one of my favorite books, “Listening Myths,” (2011) author Steven Brown says that listening is social and interactive. This has 2 very important implications for academic listening:

  1. Students now have the ability to rewind and slow down audio. At least with academic English, listening is increasingly asynchronous, with many lectures and course materials being put online. Even if a lecture is not online, students can record it in class and listen to it again, in smaller chunks and at lower speed, after class. Thus, using technology to move through audio files is not “inauthentic;” it’s in fact a common way we process listening in the 21st century.
  2. Students don’t have to listen alone. In an academic setting, listening is not necessarily an individual, isolated task; it’s often a social one – students may be free to discuss a lecture with their classmates after (or during) class. This can give them an aid to comprehension they wouldn’t have when listening alone, as these discussions can result in “meaning making” and clarification of the listening. Again, this is still authentic, because we often talk to others about what we listen to “in real life.”

Teaching ideas:

Thus, our teaching of listening should reflect these realities. Here are a few way to teach academic listening in ways that seem unconventional at first, but are in fact representative of how listening takes place nowadays!

  1. It’s OK to pause and slow down listening. This isn’t a “crutch.” It might seem that slowing down audio or breaking it into chunks is not “authentic,” and that if learners get used to this style of scaffolded listening in their EAP classes, they won’t be able to cope with real-world lectures. As mentioned above, technology now makes it possible to record real lectures and play them back at slower speeds. Thus, using this approach in class is in fact authentic, and we should encourage students to record lectures (with instructor permission, of course).
  2. Have students listen and do comprehension tasks in groups. This also makes listening more fun for students. Try this activity: Have students form groups, and give them a task for the listening passage they’re about to hear (summarize the main points, etc.). Then play the listening and have them take notes. Finally, have each group work together to create the summary or complete the task. They should be encouraged to talk with each other to confirm what they heard and help each other fill in any gaps. Student A might not be sure of one of the main points, so she can ask Student B, who happened to catch that point in his notes (but maybe not other points). On the surface, it may seem this activity doesn’t reflect what students will be faced with in an actual class, outside of their EAP program. However, this activity simulates a study group. If students are encouraged to form study groups with their classmates and meet after class to discuss the lecture, they will be in the same situation and obtain the same benefits from this “social listening.”
  3. An implication for university lecturers: Pausing frequently to ask comprehension-checking questions is standard practice for lectures, but what if professors gave students 3 minutes to talk with a partner and confirm their understanding? The professor might say, “chat with your partner about the points I just mentioned. Make sure you and your partner both understand. If you don’t, ask another pair until you do.”

A research idea!

It would be interesting to compare the comprehension or ability to summarize a listening passage between a group who listened once via this social method, and a group who listened individually for homework, rewinding and playing back as needed. The former is more authentic, as students listen only once, though it may in fact show greater comprehension since they can rely on their group for help.

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